The Obama Administration’s effort to rally public and congressional support for retaliation against Syria for using chemical weapons has come up against unexpectedly strong and broad-based opposition. This must come as an unwelcome surprise to the Neocons, whose international aspirations regarding the Middle East and the Iranian nuclear progeam are now very much in question. The opposition to action in Syria, however, stems mostly from their deceptions in the lead-up to the Iraq War and their failed wars.
Neoconservatism began in the 1960s as a movement critical of social programs but hit its stride in the next decade when it looked on worriedly at the social changes the Vietnam War had brought. They saw America weak, decadent, and unwilling to oppose the Soviet Union in the world – a situation in their view with obvious and grim parallels to Europe and the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Throughout the 1980s, the Neocons encouraged defense spending and praised military service and wartime valor, even though few of them had personal experience with either. With the fall of the Evil Empire in 1991, the movement redeployed its energies to spreading democracy in the world, especially in the Middle East. Think tanks were assembled or brought into the movement, articles stated their case, alliances were forged in congress.
The 9/11 attacks shocked the Americans and they were willing to embrace almost any military action to exact revenge. The Bush Administration was convinced it could oust the Taliban from Afghanistan and build an open economy and political system. The swiftness of the Taliban’s fall thrilled the administration and public alike. America could do no wrong. Or at least that’s how it felt with so much outrage in the public, faith in the nation, and confidence in the military.
It’s well known now, though not as well understood as it could be, that not long after the twin towers fell, the Bush administration planned a war against Iraq. National security staffers were puzzled – at least some of them. Others, those fresh from the think tanks, knew of plans to reorder the Middle East, to break down stagnant authoritarian regimes, and to bring new ones that would be open and amenable to American and Israeli interests. (I suggest there was an alternate scenario in mind, at least as a plan B: breaking down old regimes and encouraging the fragmentation of the region into antagonistic tribal and sectarian mini-states.)
Intelligence was manipulated by Neocons in the Bush administration. The CIA and other intelligence outfits were less than certain of Saddam’s WMD programs; Neocons rid the reports of uncertainty and spared us of trivial nuances. Evidence of al Qaeda contacts with Iraqi intelligence was slight; Neocons embellished the storyline.
But nasty insurgencies developed in both Afghanistan and Iraq, leading to casualty levels unimagined in the heady days just after 9/11. By 2008, the wars had cost the GOP both houses of congress and the presidency. No American interests have been served. Al Qaeda has metastasized into many parts of the Islamic world. If any country benefited from the invasion of Iraq, it was Iran which has lost an old enemy in Saddam and gained a Shia-dominated neighbor. Much of the Middle East is plagued by instability, sectarian warfare, and fragmentation.
So now, in the fall of 2013, amid a civil war in Syria, a new president faces a highly skeptical public and congress as he asks for authority to retaliate against Syria. The evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons greatly exceeds anything brought out against Saddam and there are no calls for an American ground presence. The popular support for global intervention that the Neocons so diligently cultivated after Vietnam has eroded, largely because of their manipulation of intelligence, assurances of quick painless victory, and profound ignorance of world affairs and military limitations.
The president’s inability thus far to rally adequate support for his policy in Syria horrifies the Neocons and they are organizing a lobbying effort to complement the administration’s efforts. They realize that if the president is unable to attack Syria for going beyond a stated redline and using WMDs, he or his successor may be unable to strike against Iran should intelligence indicate that it has gone beyond another redline and proceeded to build nuclear weapons. The Neocons will undoubtedly ask for a quid pro quo from the weakened president – and it may involve Iran.
The ultimate paradox would be if Iranian policy makers now decide that they have the opportunity to go past the redline and build nuclear weapons, even of they had no such intentions before. That would be the paradoxical legacy of Neoconservatism.
Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and coauthor with Danny Rittman of The Samson Heuristic, a forthcoming novel on hi-tech, intelligence, and war in the Persian Gulf. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.